As most passionate fans of cinema will fervently tell you, remakes of classics rarely hold up to their often iconic predecessors. Movie studios routinely fail to grasp what made these features beloved in the first place, and each retelling often pales in comparison to its seminal forebear. Although video games are a comparatively newer medium than film, the same principle applies to those classics we hold in high regard. Of course, what worked in the past doesn’t necessarily always work in the present. In these cases, a bit of modernization is in order.
Secret of Mana (SoM) is the latest classic title plucked out of the past by Square Enix to tug at your golden age heartstrings. Unlike many of their recent ports/re-releases/remasters, however, SoM is a full remake of 1993’s 16-bit original with updated graphics, music, and…not much else. It’s not unreasonable to say that SoM is a rare case where staying too true to the source material is a detriment rather than a laudable quality. That might sound counterintuitive in the context of a remake, but it’s an apt description for a release that feels stuck in the past.
There’s no denying that, from a game design standpoint, transforming a 2D world into a fully 3D version of itself is no small task. Beyond aesthetic considerations, developers need to consider the impact such a redesign has on the game’s mechanics. Unfortunately, SoM manages to come up short in both of these areas. The 3D renderings of the characters and environments are bland, uninspired, and seemingly left all of their charm back with their Super NES counterparts. The cutscenes, in particular, are cringeworthy and reminiscent of low-budget CGI children shows of the early 2000’s. Additionally, elements like hit mechanics don’t appear to have been taken into account with the 3D redesign. Is that enemy on a slightly higher plane than you because of the entrance ramp into that body of water? Good luck hitting it from that position.
Speaking of hit mechanics, SoM’s action combat system has aged poorly, and the remake makes little effort to shore up its shortcomings. Hit boxes are all over the place, collision detection seems nonexistent at times, and the delay between performing an attack and it registering on an enemy can be counted in multiple seconds. The addition of a thrust attack is negated by your inability to actually control whether you thrust or swipe. There are also additional AI options for your party members, but they’re not granular enough to make them very useful or your comrades any smarter than in the original. I’ll concede that I may be a bit harsh here, but this is a blatantly missed opportunity for improvement. Where the dated combat of the original feels quaint in the context of its era, its unimproved replication in the 3D remake feels lazy.
The patented ring menu system returns in the remake, though again it’s improved little and might actually be even clunkier than the original. There were so many modern quality of life improvements that a SoM remake practically screamed for, particularly within the various menus, and it would have been so easy to implement them. The addition of L and R shortcut buttons is nice, but why stop at two? Why haven’t equipment parameters been added to shop menus? Why did it take a post-launch patch to get item descriptions and character icons added to the menus? Why is there no overworld map when taking flight on Flammie???
I’d be remiss not to mention some of the remake’s clearly positive updates. The rearranged music, for one, is great outside of some questionable instrument choices on a few tracks. If the new soundtrack (or just certain songs) is not to your liking, you can easily flip to the original music right in the settings menu. The new mini-map is a great addition, and its 16-bit style is a nice touch that I enjoyed quite a bit. You can also now hold up to 12 of the same item, which goes a long way to mitigating some of the original’s more frustrating item-shortage moments.
Secret of Mana’s most vital new feature just may be its autosave function, though there’s nothing particularly innovative about it. Instead, the autosave feature is a basic necessity due to SoM’s tendency to completely crash and wipe away progress. My playthrough spanned both pre- and post-patched versions of the game, and the crashes actually occurred more frequently for me after the patch was installed. It’s astounding that such a game-breaking bug is present in such a small and simple game, but Square Enix appears to be struggling to find a solution.
For better or worse, SoM stays remarkably true to its 25-year-old ancestor. I’d go so far as characterizing it as faithful to a fault and a case study in missed opportunity. Instead of modernizing SoM while retaining and optimizing what still works — obviously easier said than done — Square Enix essentially converted the game from 2D to 3D and called it a day. There’s a fine line between doing too much and too little with any remake, though admittedly we fans will never be completely happy no matter how well a developer straddles that line. With SoM, Square Enix failed to leverage modern game design concepts and technology to improve on a treasured JRPG. Instead, they opted to do the bare minimum, and that’s a damn shame.